Colleges and Accommodations

An interesting article recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal.  “A Serious Illness or an Excuse” is worth reading and talks about what is happening on college campuses across the country: The number of students requesting accommodations has skyrocketed, and more of these students than ever have some form of documented mental illness. While OCD in particular is not mentioned, the fact that it is the fourth most common psychiatric disorder is evidence enough that  it is present on college campuses.

The article touches on various issues that arise as a result of so many students needing services. Schools are left to figure out how much and how best to accommodate students with documented disabilities. Who should make these decisions – faculty? individual teachers? counselors? disability coordinators?  And what about those students without documented disabilities who request help?  Most likely some of them are indeed suffering from some form of mental illness and have not yet been officially diagnosed, and it is also likely that some students are just trying to take advantage of the system: Get a slip from the counseling center and avoid taking that exam you neglected to study for. There are lots of different scenarios and it is up to individual colleges to develop policies to deal with them.

While laws governing special accommodations in public elementary and secondary schools can be quite detailed, colleges and universities are left to develop their own guidelines within the framework of the ADAA which basically states that these students cannot be discriminated against.

So where does this leave those with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?  We already know that OCD is complicated and often misunderstood. While therapists can make recommendations for accommodations, the truth is that sometimes those with OCD don’t know what they need until after the fact. Maybe while reading  for a literature class, someone with OCD gets “stuck” on a page for whatever reason and can’t continue on. Maybe too much attention to detail and not enough to the big picture causes problems in another class. These situations can be hard to plan for and may come across as made-up excuses to those who don’t understand. Typical accommodations such as extended deadlines and untimed testing may not necessarily be helpful, or even available, to those with OCD.

As more students with documented cases of OCD are sure to arrive on campuses, I envision this problem getting worse before getting better. This is just one more reason to continue advocating for OCD awareness. The more everyone understands the nature of this insidious disorder, the more they will come to realize that the best accommodations for those suffering from OCD just may come in the form of open-mindedness, support, flexibility, and trust.

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12 Responses to Colleges and Accommodations

  1. 71 & Sunny says:

    You are so right about the importance of spreading awareness. A school seeking to accommodate a student with OCD by giving them extra time to finish a test or paper may just be encouraging that student to spend more time ritualizing, further compounding their difficulties. You bring up some good questions. Wish I had the answers!

  2. ocdtalk says:

    Excellent point! There is indeed a fine line between helping and enabling which I discussed back in August in this article on

    You are right… many questions, and not enough answers. Thanks for your comment!

    • 71 & Sunny says:

      Great article on You know, it’s funny, as a sufferer myself, I don’t even always know when I’m seeking for someone to enable me (though I mostly do; ha ha).

  3. ocdtalk says:

    Thanks for checking out the article….I guess the helping/enabling issue can be confusing for everyone….I like that you have a sense of humor about it 🙂

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  5. “Maybe too much attention to detail and not enough to the big picture causes problems in another class.”

    That was my problem in my college classes – I ended up graduating with a 2.7 GPA after having a 4.0 in highschool. No one could figure out what was going on. Looking back, I think it was absolutely the OCD, I was stuck in the details and couldn’t see “the big picture”.

    I also enjoyed the article, btw. 🙂

  6. ocdtalk says:

    Thanks for your comment…… seems to me that this is a common problem for those with OCD, and usually all it takes is someone to point it out and redirect the student. I guess that doesn’t help you much now, but at least it’s not such a mystery as to what was going on with you in college. Thanks again for your insights!

  7. Tina says:

    Great post. I think people with OCD may be less apt to ask for accommodations than others. I had lots of trouble with “the details” in my schoolwork, and it took me so much longer to read a book when I reread every page multiple times until I read it “right.” I also had trouble writing papers because I was so afraid that I wouldn’t cite something correctly and would end up plagirizing. Since I was an English major, these things caused me problems! But I would never have tried to explain myself to a teacher. I think your point about openness and understanding from others being a kind of accommodation is right on.

  8. ocdtalk says:

    Thanks for your comment and I think you speak for many when you say “I would never have tried to explain myself to a teacher.” Hopefully in the years to come, things will change for the better and the types of accommodations those with OCD need will be readily discussed on an individual basis.

  9. KP says:

    This was so nice to read after going through a bumpy semester in college. I’m a senior now and after dealing with bipolar disorder for three years, I was diagnosed with OCD over the summer and confirmed my suspicions of there being something bigger kicking me along with mood/energy issues.

    Even now explaining myself to professors is hard and I’ve already experienced depression once this semester, so my energy and mood influenced me and my staying in bed and crying for days, weeks didn’t help. So many professors said “why didn’t you seek accommodations earlier?” which is understandable, I really should have, but of course I didn’t know what to do and I wasn’t aware of how much of an influence OCD has had on my life up to now, even reaching back to childhood.

    Now I have to try catching up with reading things and writing papers, but I procrastinate and worry about citing things correctly, fluidity of the paper, what if I write it wrong, what if I’m missing something, I should wait to write it just in case I find something new, etc … Reading is so hard, too; it takes me hours to read one chapter or focus on a whole page since I never feel like I’ve read a sentence or paragraph correctly the first time, or it must not have registered in my head correctly.

    Everything that could possibly go wrong has gone wrong and my grades have suffered…for yet another semester…

    Therapy’s been tough because even after all of the research I’ve done, it’s hard to figure out what I can do to help myself, especially so close to the end of the semester (also, sorry, I’m replying to such an old post!). I’m just so frustrated because I don’t want to appear lazy even though I constantly think I’m faking it and I’m such a liar, I’m so lazy, etc… all of that stuff.

    • Thank you for sharing, KP, and I’m so sorry to hear you’ve been having such a tough time. Dealing with OCD and college can be so difficult; I am impressed that you are forging ahead and think you should give yourself a lot of credit!
      You mentioned therapy but I’m not sure if your therapist uses exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, which is the evidence-based therapy for OCD, and it works! I think that’s the most important thing you can do for yourself at this point. If you are using ERP you can work with your therapist to tackle the issues you are having with schoolwork, and also tie that in to getting the appropriate accommodations where necessary. Good luck as you move forward!

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